The Woman Who Named God

I just finished reading Charlotte Gordon’s, The Woman Who Named God, which tells the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, and their offspring – Ishmael and Isaac.

The woman referred to in the title of the book is Hagar, who I think is often treated as a bit player in the story of Abraham. Yet it is Hagar who, the first time she speaks in the Bible, is the first to address God by name. When she runs away into the desert, God appears to her and makes predictions about her future. When God finishes doing so, Hagar says, “You are El-roi.” In naming God, “Hagar reveals an originality, a willingness to break from convention, and an eagerness to connect to this bewildering deity that sets her apart from every other Biblical figure, male or female.”

That most Christians see Hagar as no more than a bit player is, at one level, not surprising. We have such a tendency to think of things in stark, binary categories. If Sarah is the good wife, Hagar must be the “other woman.” If Isaac is the son who will give rise to nations, Ishmael must be the one cast aside. As Gordon observes, “It has been difficult for the human imagination to conceive of both of Abraham’s sons as blessed or to believe that both mothers were elected by God.” She suggests it is this human limitation that has created what she describes as a “family quarrel” between Muslims and Jews and Muslims and Christians. “Each side tends to perceive the ‘other’ son as unnecessary and, worse, as a hindrance to their one candidate’s claim of primacy.”

In her book, Gordon seeks to convey a greater understanding of all of these characters and their roles in the origins of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths, in the hope that we might come to “view these three great religions in all their complexity rather than as opponents in a war where winner takes all.” It is a laudable aim and I think she succeeds in giving readers much to think about. Particularly powerful for me were both the linkage drawn by Gordon between Isaac and Hagar, and the image of fraternal unity provided by the coming together of Isaac and Ishmael to bury their father.

The book is both scholarly and readable. It is respectful of each of the three religious traditions even as it invites readers from each of the traditions to stretch beyond some of the stereotypical depictions of events and characters many of us grew up with. I tremendously enjoyed reading the book.

Update: Here is one explanation of the name El-roi, used by Hagar.

2 thoughts on “The Woman Who Named God

  1. I was just feeling sad that one reviewer called the book too scholarly. Then someone sent me the link to your blog. Thank you for your thoughtful and careful reading of the book. It really cheered me up to read your words.

  2. Hagar IS a bit player in the story. She is almost totally unremarkable. To fail to understand that is to miss the point: God cares enough to watch even the least significant of us.

    She does not “name” God as if she has any right to do so. She simply recognizes Him for who He has shown himself to be; “the God who sees”. She does not know His name, so she refers to Him by a description of His character as He has revealed it to her. She is the only one who ever uses these words to describe Him. It isn’t especially creative and it is not a reflection of her eagerness to know God but rather His eagerness to reveal Himself to her. She did not cry out to God, He came to her.

    Too often I see people projecting their own thoughts, feelings and circumstances onto scripture, often missing what God is really trying to tell us. How can Hagar be described as “breaking from convention” when we don’t know what the conventions of her day were? This isn’t a story of Hagar doing great things. It is a story of God doing great things for Hagar, not because she was special in any way but simply because she obeyed Him and returned to Sarai.

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